To the President: A defense of earthworm anarchism

  • 2001-02-08
  • Juris Kaza
To be precise, this is more of an explanation than a defense. And an explanation is where one has to start, because some things get lost in the translation. In Latvian, zeme means both earth (as in topsoil) and land (as in "this land was made for you and me," as Woody Guthrie sang it, like a people or a nation).

When giving a speech to commemorate the 10th anniversary of the January barricades of 1991, President Vaira Vike-Freiberga criticized the often-heard view that "I love this land but not this state," as in "es milu so zemi, bet ne so valsti." To my mind, this is an expression of generalized patriotism for Latvia, and well-founded frustration, disappointment and disgust at the way affairs have been run here for the past 10 years.

Playing on the ambiguity of zeme, the president urged us to have a somewhat better attitude toward the state, and pointed out that while earthworms, snakes and lizards love the topsoil, we, who are higher up the food and brain chain should give the Latvian state a break.

Regarding the bit about the earthworms and the lizards, one really shouldn't wonder what Latvia's non-smoking president has been smoking. When translated, her erudite speech simply loses some of its salt, as Latvians would say.

I won't belabor that. Suffice it to say that the president was doing her job perfectly, as usual, and on such a solemn and reflective occasion, too. It is one of her duties to be a national mood brightener, and anyone else doing the job would probably have said something similar.

Where that puts former Prime Minister Andris Skele's "get off your ass, brush your teeth and learn English" speech of a few years ago (my own paraphrasing) remains an interesting question, but I think even he was trying to do the same thing. And I am certainly not against cheering up the folks living on Mara's topsoil (Maras zeme - you bilingual readers can put away the kitchen knives, there won't be more of this, probably).

I do believe, however, that the viewpoint of the state haters and topsoil lovers - let's call it earthworm anarchism - is well founded and quite reasonable. The state is at best a kind of benevolent and necessary parasite on the social fabric in the best of times and places. At worst? The Soviet Union in 1937, Germany in 1942, Cambodia in 1975, Rwanda in 1994. Take your pick. And that's only the 20th century, when the idea of individual freedom was already a couple of hundred years old.

The American Declaration of Independence puts it rather well, stating quite clearly that "when in the course of human events" the government becomes a serious obstacle to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness - well - you do away with the damn thing, by arms if necessary. That's only happened once in American history (we'll skip the Whiskey Rebellion, the Civil War and the Draft Riots), but the basic message of the Declaration is close to the "I love the topsoil but not the state" view of things.

In Latvia's case, the state has been an unmitigated disaster for the last 70 years. For 50 years, the "state" was a foreign one, the U.S.S.R., a sterling example of how the Russians (aided by the Latvian Rifles at one stage) can excel on a global scale - at political abomination. But things came to that because the Latvian state founded in 1918 simply failed in its most elementary and limited purpose - to protect the rights and individual freedom of its citizens.

A root cause was the collapse of political democracy in Latvia in 1934. Big Karlis (President Karlis Ulmanis, who took on authoritarian powers in a coup) made all the decisions in 1939 and 1940, and even now some folks want to put up a statue to him in the garden of the Presidential Palace, where President Vaira could have her afternoon tea in the summer if there wasn't a small but realistic chance that pieces of the palace could fall on her.

In the 10 years since 1991, some considerably good stuff has happened (my optimistic glaciologist friend Ojars Kalnins had some good arguments in the Jan. 11-17 issue of The Baltic Times), but little of it has to do with what the state or the government has done. It is the "land" that is moving ahead, meaning the nation or the people, despite their own deep post-Soviet wounds and psycho-social traumas.

But the state, to put it mildly, remains a grave disappointment. It is a procession of political coalitions pulling Chinese fire drills every nine months, and a Goon Show parliament (one commentator described the fragmentation of political forces in the previous Parliament as govju staigasana, the wandering of cattle).

Add to this a nightmare bureaucracy and semivisible economic and political games going on under the surface that are symptoms either of shameless depravity, cretinism, or a potent mixture of both. So we are, like, supposed to dig the state?

The earthworm anarchism that the president criticized is an attitude formed by experience and therefore difficult to change by argument and exhortation alone. I certainly hope the Latvian state will turn into a somewhat more tolerable and housebroken creature. The alternative, the downside, is rather unattractive. In the rankings of corruption and what the Latvians would call bardaks (an impenetrable mess), it is still a long way down to, say, Nigeria, never mind street-football-with-skulls places like Sierra Leone. But one has to strain one's neck a little to check where Estonia is on the upside.

I am something of an earthworm anarchist myself. I support most of those who declare "I love this land, but not this state." I don't quite follow the line of thought that says "the state is a cruel sow and we her subjects are helpless, underfed suckling piglets," which is behind some of the complaining. This is the Big Leader Karlis/communist mentality that keeps hallucinating that government can create prosperity. It can only kill it, or at best, step out of the way and then, decades later, slice the cake as generously as Sweden, where some 60 percent of the gross national product is redistributed by taxes.

The president, judging from her earlier speeches, also agrees with Andris Skele that it is time to get moving, get educated, get working, etc., and do all that with some kind of bright thoughts about the future. She is a good cheerleader for Latvia.

But I wish someone would come out and play the role of Porky Pig. He is an American cartoon character, a pig who appears and stutters, "That's all folks!" It meant the Looney Tunes were over.